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After rejecting one plea deal, Ald. Willie Cochran set again to plead guilty

Ald. Willie Cochran faces sentencing Monday for wire fraud.
Ald. Willie Cochran (20th) arrives in December 2016 at the Dirksen Federal Courthouse for his arraignment on corruption charges. | Sun-Times file photo

Ald. Willie Cochran has apparently decided to plead guilty after all.

For more than two years, the 20th Ward alderman has been facing allegations that he sought bribes from businessmen and looted a charitable fund he controlled to pay for personal expenses, including his daughter’s college tuition.

Just last November, a judge set a trial date for Cochran after Cochran’s attorney said plea negotiations with federal prosecutors had broken down.

But now, a “change of plea” hearing has been set for Cochran on March 21 before U.S. District Judge Jorge Alonso, court records show.

Cochran’s attorney could not immediately be reached for comment Tuesday.

The federal charges against Cochran landed in December 2016. They went public while the City Council was singing the praises of the then-World Series Champion Chicago Cubs.

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Cochran insisted at the time he would not resign from the council, saying in a text message to the Sun-Times that “you resign when you are guilty.”

“Indictments are not guilty pleas,” Cochran said.

Now Cochran’s term on the City Council is almost up, and he did not run for re-election. Meanwhile, his anticipated guilty plea comes amid a series of headline-grabbing public corruption scandals in Chicago.

Fellow Ald. Ed Burke (14th) was charged by federal prosecutors in January with attempted extortion. The Sun-Times then revealed that the feds had built a corruption case against fellow Ald. Danny Solis (25th), prompting him to secretly record Burke. Then, on Monday, word arrived that former 10th Ward Ald. Edward Vrdolyak plans to plead guilty Thursday in a separate case.

The 15-count indictment filed against Cochran in 2016 accuses him of fraud, extortion and federal program bribery.

It alleged Cochran looted a 20th Ward fund meant to help children and senior citizens, using $5,000 to pay his daughter’s college tuition and withdrawing $25,000 from ATMs near his preferred casinos. He was also accused of accepting bribes from businessmen who needed favors from him.

The indictment hit Cochran with 11 counts of wire fraud, two counts of federal program bribery and two counts of extortion. He was accused of taking a $1,500 bribe from an attorney seeking a letter from him as part of a redevelopment project for foreclosed housing, as well as a $3,000 bribe from another man who wanted to sell his liquor store in the ward but needed a packaged goods license.

The feds say the 20th Ward Activities Fund was promoted to contributors as a way to pay for a summer back-to-school picnic, a Valentine Day’s event for seniors, and school supplies and warm jackets for kids. Cochran used money from the fund not only for tuition but also to buy personal items for his home, the feds say. Further, they suggested he used it to gamble.

Cochran’s attorney, Christopher Grohman, has not denied Cochran used money from the charitable account. But he argued that Cochran deposited personal funds into the account to “cover or almost cover” the personal expenses.

“He never intended to defraud any of those constituents,” Grohman said.

The defense attorney also said the bribery charges against Cochran rely on two “very weak” witnesses. He said one has offered contradictory accounts, and the other has said he did not feel pressured by Cochran to make a campaign contribution.